MIDDLETOWN – During his coaching career alone, Ben Gamble has been on the bench for NJSIAA Tournament of Champions finals, in front of packed arenas against nationally-ranked teams, and coached the top team in the nation during his time as an assistant to Hall of Famer Bob Hurley at St. Anthony’s.

Despite that, even he was nervous for his first game as the head boys basketball coach of Mater Dei Prep Friday against three-time defending Shore Conference Class B Central division champion Point Pleasant Beach and Gamble’s main concern was that his team might show those same nerves in front of its home crowd.

Instead of using that first quarter to calm the butterflies, his Seraphs – the No. 2 team in the Shore Sports Network Preseason Top 10 – used the first eight minutes to make a statement.

Mater Dei stormed out to an early lead en route to a 57-38 win over the No. 6 Garnet Gulls Friday to gain an early edge on its B Central foe and open up a new era for the program.

“This was a big game, because this is new program,” Gamble said. “You want to make a statement and you want to start off on the right foot.

“I worried about kids being nervous. I was nervous. I’ve been around a lot of big events and I still was nervous. I wondered if the kids were going to be nervous and hitting the first basket, going up 6-2 and then really having that super first quarter really helped.”


Gamble took over a 10-15 Seraphs team after leading Cardinal McCarrick to a 20-win season a year ago. After the school closed down, he accepted an offer to become the head coach at Mater Dei and brought over four of his Eagles players, who make up less than half of the nine transfers on this year’s Seraphs team.

“It feels like a continuation of last year,” senior guard NyQuan McCombs said. “Coming here playing basketball under the same coach makes it feel that way, but I’ve learned a lot of new things and I’m having fun.”

McCombs, Gamble’s starting point guard at Cardinal McCarrick last year, scored a game-high 18 points to start his Mater Dei career in grand fashion. McCombs scored 11 points in the first quarter, during which the Seraphs blitzed Point Beach to take a 20-5 after the first eight minutes. In addition to the big offensive quarter for its point guard, Mater Dei held Point Beach to 0-for-10 shooting from the field over those first eight minutes.

“I said we were going to be a good team defensively,” Gamble said. “We pressure all over the place and we took them out of their offense, took them out of their system and we really rattled their guards with the defensive presence that we had.”

“It was a crazy,” McCombs said of the atmosphere. “Some people said they (Point Beach) were ranked higher than us (in the NJ.com Preseason Top 20) so we took that as a challenge and got after them.”

Junior forward Elijah Barnes – a transfer from Central Regional who began his high school career at Freehold Borough as a freshman – added 12 points, eight rebounds, five assists, five blocks and three steals while helping to anchor a Mater Dei defense that limited Point Beach to 12-for-41 shooting (29 percent) for the game while forcing 11 Garnet Gulls turnovers.

“We know how to share the ball, pass it around, and our defense is way better than any team I’ve ever played on,” Barnes said. “So we can defend anybody.”

“You’re always a little bit nervous: new gym, new atmosphere, national anthem and a big crowd. This is probably one of the biggest crowds I’ve played in front of in my life. It was a good win. I’m happy to get it.”

Barnes was a part of a promising young core for the Golden Eagles last season, but his early experience with Gamble at Mater Dei has been a level above what he experienced at his first two high school stops.

“Expectations are real high, especially from coach Gamble because he’s a real tough coach coming from Coach (Hurley’s staff),” Barnes said. “So he expects excellence, no matter where we are, who we’re playing. We’re expected to win, regardless. We don’t care if we’re playing St. Anthony’s, St. Patrick’s, Point Beach; it doesn’t matter.

“I love to win. I hate losing. Losing is the worst thing. It’s awful.”

Senior Marist transfer Kyle Elliot and junior Cardinal McCarrick transfer Elijah Mitchell each added 10 points Friday, with Mitchell also chipping in six rebounds and three assists while taking on the primary responsibility guarding Point Beach senior guard Jimmy Panzini. After missing time in the preseason due to a hand laceration, according to Garnet Gulls coach Nick Catania, Panzini scored seven points in the opener on 2-for-7 shooting.

“I know he didn’t play a lot during the preseason, so he didn’t really have his legs yet,” said Gamble, who crossed paths with Panzini for two years at St. Anthony’s, where Panzini spent his freshman and sophomore years. “He shouldn’t have been able to be us off the dribble. We had a lot of focus on him, but we really weren’t trying to do anything extra with him. We just wanted to work him and get into his legs.”

Point Beach senior and Middletown South transfer Alex Mrusek led Point Beach with 16 points and 10 rebounds in his first game with his new team. Point Beach played the opener Friday without its other transfer, sophomore Chris Pina, who came over from Spotswood and sat out while recovering from a concussion, according to Catania.

After Mater Dei stunned them with a 20-5 first quarter, the Garnet Gulls responded by scoring the first nine points of the second quarter to chop the Mater Dei lead to 20-14. Sophomore Danny Fraunheim scored on a layup off a feed from sophomore Trevor Covey on the first possession of the second to end Point Beach’s field goal drought. Junior Mike Rice then nailed a three-pointer from the left wing and Covey scored the next four points on a pair of free throws and a layup off a feed from Panzini.

McCombs ended the Point Beach run by getting to the foul line and hitting a pair of free throws. Barnes then hit Elliot for a layup and scored on a power move in the post to cap a 6-0 Mater Dei burst that stretched the lead back to 26-14. The Seraphs would take a 31-18 lead into the half.

Point Beach fought to keep the game within reach during the third quarter and a three by Frauenheim from the left corner cut Mater Dei’s lead to 39-29 late in the quarter, but McCombs slashed into the lane for a nifty finish as the final seconds of the third ticked away, giving his team a 41-29 advantage going to the fourth.

Mitchell hit two back-breaking three-pointers early in the fourth quarter to stretch Mater Dei’s lead to 49-34 and Barnes put an exclamation point on the victory with a thunderous fast-break dunk and, shortly thereafter, a lay-up as he was fouled following a steal at midcourt.

Mater Dei Prep played without four of its nine transfers Friday, with three beginning a 30-day stint on the bench per NJSIAA transfer rules and another – senior Cardinal McCarrick transfer Bryan Harris – sitting with an ankle injury, according to Gamble. Marist transfers Kenny Jones and Maleek McKnight and Rahway transfer Marvin Pierre are all slated to return to action on Jan. 19, when the Seraphs take on Asbury Park on the road.

“We’ve got three games before the holiday break and going in, sometimes people say, ‘Ah, you know, it would be good to go 2-1,’” Gamble said. “I want to win all three games. I want my kids to understand the mentality is much different. In every game, we’re going to be prepared, we’re going to be ready and we’re going to play hard.”


Box Score

Mater Dei Prep 57, Point Beach 38

1 2 3 4 F
Point Beach (0-1, 0-1) 5 13 11 9 38
Mater Dei Prep (1-0, 1-0) 20 11 10 16 57


Point Beach (38): Danny Frauenheim 2 0-1 5, Jimmy Panzini 2 3-4 7, Alex Mrusek 6 4-4 16, Trevor Covey 1 2-2 4, Mike Rice 1 3-4 6, Stephen Flanders 0 0-0 0, Luke Frauenheim 0 0-0 0. Totals: 12 12-15 38

Three-pointers: Frauenheim, Rice

Mater Dei Prep (57): NyQuan McCombs 6 4-7 18, Elijah Mitchell 3 2-2 10, Elijah Barnes 4 4-5 12, Kyle Elliot 4 1-3 10, Tom Hannafin 0 0-0 0, Josh Green 2 3-4 7, Sky Cherry 0 0-0 0, Eddie Lewis 0 0-0 0, Sean Krueger 0 0-0 0. Totals: 19 14-21 57

Three-pointers: McCombs 2, Mitchell 2, Elliot